The Athlone Branch of the IWAI is the oldest branch in the organisation set up just 5 weeks after the national association was set up. The organisation founder Harry Rice was from Athlone. Harry as a long and distinguished history with the waterways and in addition to boating, campaigning, mapping the waterways, he has written one of the most interesting books on the Shannon. The iconic book “Thanks for the Memory” can be purchased by clicking here
History of the Branch
Adapted Extracts from “Silver Jubilee 1954 to 1979” published by Athlone Branch in 1979
Towards the end of 1951 the Irish Times published an article written by the late Vincent Delany which pointed out “the shameful neglect of the unrivalled facilities of our canals and rivers as a commercial mode of transport and as a boon to our tourism industry”. The article generated much discussion and correspondence throughout 1952 and 1953 with support focusing on the campaign being carried on in Athlone to prevent the erection of a low arch bridge to replace the existing swing arch bridge across the River Shannon. At the same time it appeared that the Shannon and Canal Navigations were being deliberately run down by a progressive reduction in maintenance, which would ultimately result in their closure. The late Harry Rice and the late Vincent Delany and other waterway lovers had been discussing the need for an Association to protect the future of the rivers and canals.
Their deliberations led to the calling of a public meeting in the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin on 7th January 1954, with the purpose of forming an Association. Over 200 people attended the inaugural meeting of the new association, The Inland Waterways Association of Ireland. Colonel Harry Rice was elected first President, and Vincent Delaney and Mr. L.M. Goodbody were elected Joint Hon. Secretaries.
The Inland Waterways Association of Ireland was now a reality, and as the scope of the Association’s activities was to be nationwide it was considered that the problems of the Shannon needed special and local attention.
The notice of the Athlone meeting, on Inland Waterways Association of Ireland headed notepaper, in 1954 read :-A meeting of the above Association will be held in the Crescent Ballroom, Athlone at 8.15pm on Friday, February 19th. The aims of the Association are :-
1. To promote commercial traffic on our Irish rivers and canals.
2. To ensure that their attractions for boating, cruising, fishing and sailing are more widely known.
3. To oppose any obstruction to their free navigation.
4. To co-operate with other Bodies which may have similar interests.
5. To preserve historical records and safeguard cultural interests.
The business of the meeting shall be to found an Athlone Regional Branch with representation on the existing Headquarters Council. The Rules of the Association, which have already been authorised at an All-Ireland Meeting, shall be read.
Members and intending members shall be invited to elect a Chairman and Officers. Other business shall include a discussion on how the affairs of the Branch may best be conducted in the interests of the National Association and the Athlone Area. We welcome not only the men but also the women of our district and hope they may come and give us their counsel.
The annual membership subscription is 5/-.
The notice was signed by T.A. Marrinan, Acting Honorary Secretary. This led to the formation of the Athlone Branch five weeks later. The Athlone branch was formed on 19 February 1954 at a public meeting in the Cresent Ballroom Athlone. The first officers of the branch elected were
Chairman W.A. Tormey, Honory Secretary T.A. Marrinan, Honary Treasurer C. Rice, Committee Fr. Moran, D. Lyster, Mrs J. Reid, Dr J. O Meara, J. Newell, J. Glennon, P.J. Lynott, P.C. Molloy, T. Gallagher, T. Hoggan, A. Fadden, F. Waters, J. Wheatley, J. Williams, P. Hanley
Delegate Members: K. Kenny (Banagher), J O. Callaghan (Boyle)
Projects put forward were
a) The maintenance of a swivel bridge at Athlone
b) Feasibility of establishing a holiday camp on one of the larger islands of Lough Ree
c) The providing of landing stages at well known local beauty spots and at historical places on the Shannon
d) Reduction of freight charges on our canal systems
e) That a boat slip be erected at Burgess Park
f) That the reclaimed land in the vicinity of the river Shannon by Messrs Gentex Ltd be cleaned up
g) Depeputation to Westmeath County Council to have Sandy Bay reopened to the general public
h) Letter to Westmeath County Council re the deplorable condition of the Ballyglass and Coosan roads
i) To investigate the possibility of the carriage of heavy building materials by water from Limerick to Athlone and important centres
j) To plant trees on the lower bank of the River Shannon.
Mr Sean McBride proposed that the meeting views with alarm the condition of the Clarendon Lock at Knockvicar – the lock was repaired and reopened to boating traffic in 1956. The first battle of the branch was to prevent the erection of a proposed low level, concrete fixed bridge in Athlone. Public opinion was not on the side of the new branch as additional tax payers money would have to be spent on any bridge other than the low level structure. The branch received considerable support from the Westmeath Independent. Following an active campaign by the branch a bridge was erected that gave the same clearance as the old swing bridge.
The second achievement of the branch was encouragement of the introduction of “St Brendan“ and “St Ciaran” two passenger cruisers by CIE. This suggestion was put forward by the branch to An Tánaiste William Norton and the Chairman of CIE Mr. Courtney in August 1954 on a private trip on the Shannon organized by the branch. The arrival of the St Brendan in June 10955 was an occasion of great jubilation and the branch organized a flotilla of craft to escort her from Wrens island to her new berth.
The branch then focused its attention on weed cutting between the two bridges. Following a lengthy campaign and dealing with a wide range of bodies from Athlone UDC, ESB, Office of Public Works, Department of Fisheries, the weeds were eventually cut by John Weaving. This poed another problem as the cut weeds clogged up the sluice gates and eel nets. The longer term solution was the introduction of more boating traffic. The branch failed in their effots to open up Sandy Bay to the general public but had success with Board Failte and Athlone UDC in providing landing stages at Clonmacnoise Athlone and Hodson Bay and piped fresh water and refuse bins on all keys used by the boating fraternity.
Plans were made for a rally to the North Shannon and in 1954 two cruised were organized to lanesborop and Clonmacnoise and in 1955 a number of open boats traveled to Knockvicar. At that time the locklk was inoperative and the had to haul the boats over the weir and they journey continued to Lough key and Doon. By 1956 the Claredon Lock at Knockvicar was reopened and the way was clear for the first Shannon Boar Rally. Colonel Rice acted as Commodore and travelled by open boat to Carrick n Shannon.
The branch has continued the tradition of work parties and have completed and maintained a number of important sites around the South Shannon. They have planted over six hundred trees, saved the trees on Carberry Island from damage, Mucknagh Wood, trees at Lecarrow, installed seven safe anchorages on Lough Ree from foul weather, clean up of Rindoon Castle, maintained Ballykeeran jetty and much more.
Other minor achievements were the reduction of the Grand Canal and Dry Dock charges by half, the reopening of the Edenderry Branch of the Grand Canal, provision of pilot lights at Athlone docks and elsewhere, development of a large scale chart of Lough Ree (H. Rice and C. Rice), assisted in the running of the Shannon Swim, the Athlone Peoples Regatta, fundraising activities to help the Shannon flood victims, documented the historic monuments in and around Lough Ree and its Island led by Billy English, with the help of Board Failte and the Office of Public Works.
The branch was actively involved in the prolonged campaign against the closing of the canals. At a general meeting in May 1958 the following resolution wsas adoptd “That this general meeting views with grave concern the provision in the proposed Transport Act 1958, now before the Dail whereby CIE is to be given the power to close any Irish Canal or Navigation under its control without further enquiry” The campaign was taken to every politicial involved and as a results of the efforts of the branch the Bill was amended. The branch assisted other branches with other campaigns they fought especially the proposed closure of canals in Dublin to relieve the metropolitian traffic problem. It was not until 1964 that it was officially stated that the canals would not be closed.
The Westmeath Independent published Thanks for the Memory by Col Rice in 1960 over a period of several months. The book related personal reminisces traditions history and navigational details about the river Shannon from 1954 to 1952. “Thanks for the Memory” was reissued by the branch in a limited edition of 500 copies in 1974 and 1,000 copies in 1976.
The branch worked closely with other water based organizations in Athlone such as sailing races in 1973 with Lough Ree Yacht Club, involved in the formation of Athlone Sub Acqua Club, involved in the formation of a branch of An Taisce, partnered with the Round table in the revival of the Athlone Peoples Regatta, encourages the setting up of the Tullomore branch of IWAI, fundraising dinner fro RNLI , funding to the Royal Restoration, assisting Athlone Anglers with developing a picnic shelter on Yellow Island, Membership of MERTA promoting tourism, barge week work in on the first stretch of the canal from Leitrim village, campaigning to open up and develop Lecarrow Canal, the support of the Lough Erne Rally in 1966, and the installation of a slipway in memory of Col Rice at Jolly Mariner.
The branch in 1960 set up a junior branch and at one stage had fifty one members. Attendances fell away and the branch was disbanded in 1962. The Athlone Aeriel a branch newsletter was introduced in 1975 and is used to communicate branch policy activities, other local marine club activities, chandlery and boating tops and is still produced today.
Vandalism was an issue on the River during the the late seventies. The branch formed a sub-committee and with wide consultation with local traders, chamber of commerce, Gardai, councilors, Board Failte, IBRA and developed a proposal to appoint a River Information Officer. The branch met with the County manager and other interested parties. The result was the appointment of the first River Warden in May 1978 with a view to addressing the vandalism.
In recent years the branch has worked jointly with local organisations in bringing water projects to fruitition including the Athlone Canal, and provided financial support to Athlone Sub Acqua training room, maintained Dunrovin, the home of Col Rice and Cynthia Rice, the associations founding members, erected a commerative sculpture at the town marina, launched a new branch burgee, run many cruise in companies, lobbied local government on many issues, the inauguration of the RNLI rescue service for the South Shannon, the continued participation in the Shannon Rally and many more activities.